US-Turkey relations took a turn for the worse on Sunday as both governments announced the scaling back of visa issuing services in each other’s countries.
This comes amid increased tensions between Washington and Ankara after a Turkish staffer was arrested at the US consulate in Turkey for alleged links to the Pennsylvania-based opposition cleric Fethullah Gulen — whom Ankara says was behind the 2016 failed coup.
It also follows what experts have dubbed a “hostage-taking” strategy by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to gain US concessions.
Late Sunday evening, the US embassy in Ankara announced that “recent events” have forced the US government to reassess Turkey’s “commitment” to the security of US mission facilities and personnel.
It said in a statement that “in order to minimise the number of visitors to our embassy and consulates while this assessment proceeds, effective immediately we have suspended all non-immigrant visa services at all US diplomatic facilities in Turkey.”
Non-immigrant visas are issued to all those travelling to the US for tourism, education, medical treatment, business and media.
Hours after the decision, Turkey retaliated through its embassy in Washington issuing a word-for-word copy statement that suspends non-immigrant visas to US citizens.
Henri Barkey, a professor in the International Relations department at Lehigh University, told The National that the US move is “a blunt warning to Mr Erdogan”.
“It’s serious, but it’s an assessment which makes it temporary,” he said, adding the assessment will tell “the Turkish government: you better do something [about the people it detained]”.
The arrest of the staffer last week was not the first time Turkey detains a US consulate employee. In May, a senior Turkish employee of the US consulate was arrested in the southern province of Adana.
Aaron Stein, of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East, said that Turkey has in recent months imprisoned Americans and US embassy and consulate staff under “dubious charges”.
This behaviour is in line with Mr Erdogan’s idea “to trade these people for Mr Gulen”, he said. “This is a policy of hostage-taking, and the Turkish authorities finally pushed the US too far and, today, Washington retaliated.”
But it may be less about Mr Gulen and more about those the US arrested in New York, said Mr Barkey.
“Erdogan is creating a hostage crisis … he is being explicit, if they [US] want the people we are holding, they have to give us the people they are holding.”
According to Mr Barkey, the Turkish president is interested in retaining those Turks arrested for violating the Iran sanctions.
He said Mr Erdogan would like to swap the businessman Reza Zarrab and the banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla — both of whom were arrested in the US — with the detained US consulate employees.
“That’s who Mr Erdogan wants and [he wants them] before Mr Zarrab starts talking about his involvement in violating US sanctions on Iran,” he added.
Both Mr Stein and Mr Barkey agreed that this a new low for US-Turkey relations and could have repercussions on anti-ISIL and defence co-operation between the two NATO members.
“It is fair to say that the trust level is near zero and this makes it worse,” said Mr Stein.
Tensions have already been simmering between US and Turkey even before the failed coup in 2016.
Washington’s support for the Kurd’s People Protection Units (YPG) forces in Syria has infuriated Ankara, while the US has been critical of Turkey’s approach against ISIL, including the leak in Turkey’s state-run news agency Anadolu of US military locations in northern Syria last June.
Immediate backlash from this may hurt mostly Turkish students and tourists coming to the US, Mr Barkey noted. He added that long-term damage — including the prospect of the US seeking an alternative to the Incirlik airbase — will materialise if this crisis is not resolved.